Friday, January 29, 2010

France Recommends Partial Ban on Veils — Not Total Ban

French lawmakers recommended a partial ban on any veils that cover the face – including the burqa, the full-body covering worn by some Muslim women, backing off from a total ban that is supported by a clear majority of its citizens.

The ban on the "voile integrale" – which literally means "total veil" – would apply in public places like hospitals and schools, and on public transport, a French parliamentary commission announced Tuesday.

It would also apply to anyone who attempts to receive public services, but it would not apply to people wearing the burqa on the street, the commission said.

The commission stopped short of recommending a full ban only because not all of the 32 commission members could agree on it.

Italy announced that it too may soon seek a ban or partial ban on full-face Muslim veils, drawing on France’s debate. Equal Opportunities Minister Mara Carfagna has said the Italian government will quickly follow in France's footsteps, breathing new life into four draft bills on the niqab or burqa already circulating in parliamentary committees.

"I completely agree with the French initiative, which I think will push other European countries and hence, also Italy, to enact laws on this issue," Carfagna said this week.

"This is about a sacrosanct battle to defend the dignity and rights of immigrant women. A law is being studied that would ban the use of a burqa and niqab, which are not religious symbols – that's not us saying it, but the top religious authorities of the Islamic world, like the imams of Cairo and Paris."

France already has a law against Muslim girls wearing headscarves in state schools. It sparked widespread Muslim protests when the French Parliament passed the law in 2004, even though the law also bans other conspicuous religious symbols including Sikh turbans, large Christian crucifixes and Jewish skull caps.

The Commission has now recommended that Parliament pass a resolution on the partial ban. Such a resolution, if passed, would not make the wearing of a full veil or burqa illegal, but it would give public officials support when asking people to remove it.

Commission members began their work six months ago after French President Nicolas Sarkozy controversially told lawmakers that the full veil was "not welcome" in France.

Sarkozy said the issue is one of a woman's freedom and dignity, and did not have to do with religion.

The French National Assembly assembled a cross-party panel of 32 lawmakers to study whether women in France should be allowed to wear the burqa – or any other full veil, including the niqab, which shows only the eyes. The commission also studied whether such full veils pose a threat to France's constitutionally mandated secularism.

Commission members heard from 200 people from all areas of French society, including Muslims, though they only heard from one woman who wears a veil.

By recommending a ban on full veils in public places such as hospitals and schools and by anyone receiving public services, the commission members said they wanted to assist those working with members of the public when asking that full veils be removed. That would include school teachers who meet children's parents or ticket agents at train stations.

A date for the vote in Parliament has not been set, though it is unlikely to happen before regional elections which are scheduled for March 14 and 21. Parliamentary majority leader Jean-Francois Cope said this week he believed the resolution will pass.

Any law directed at an outright ban of full veils is likely to be challenged in the courts both in France and at the European level.

Nonetheless, more than half of French people support a full ban, according to a recent opinion poll. The Ipsos poll for Le Point magazine found 57 percent of French people said it should be illegal to appear in public wearing clothes that cover the face.

That's despite government estimates that less than 2,000 women in the country actually wear the full Islamic veil.

France has about 3.5 million Muslims, representing about six percent of the population, according to research by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. The country does not collect its own statistics on religion in accordance with laws enshrining France's status as a secular state.

French lawmakers believe the burqa is a growing phenomenon beneath which lies a not-so-subtle message of fundamentalism.

Those who advocate the ban say women are often forced to wear full veils by the men around them – husbands, fathers or brothers – and that it is a sign of subjugation.

However, women who actually wear the veils deny that.

"You are going to isolate these women and then you can't say that it is Islam that has denied them freedom, but that the law has," said Mabrouka Boujnah, a language teacher of Tunisian origin.

Boujnah, who at 28 is about to have her first child, says she came to wearing a full veil gradually, after wearing headscarves as an teenager. She said she believes a law against full veils would take away fundamental rights of Muslim women.

She and her friend Oumkheyr, who would not give her last name, say they prefer to cover their faces out of piety. The women, both French citizens, say they are only following their religious beliefs and France should respect that.

But even some Muslims in France think the full veil goes too far.

There is nothing in the Quran that directs women to cover their faces, said Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, who runs the Islamic center in Drancy, a Paris suburb. He said it is ridiculous to do so in France.

In 2008, France's top court denied a Moroccan woman's naturalization request on the grounds that she wore a burqa.

France is not the only European Union country to consider banning the burqa. Dutch lawmakers voted in favor of a ban in 2005, although the government at the time left office before legislation could be passed.

Critics see the niqab or burqa, a full veil with a slit for the eyes, as a symbol of the subjugation of women.

To the full Islamic veil worn by some women in his country, Sarkozy answers with a resounding, "Non."

Saying the clothing was "not welcome" in a nation that valued sexual equality in his new year’s speech to the nation, Sarkozy said he favors moves to ban the face-covering veil, calling for an “unambiguous” parliamentary resolution.

However, to squelch accusations of promoting anti-Muslim sentiment, Sarkozy said any law should avoid stigmatizing any ethnic or religious groups.

In response to those in his right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party who are pushing for an immediate ban of the full veil in public, he said lawmakers should wait for results of a six-month parliamentary inquiry before taking action. After that, parliament should pass a non-binding, but “unambiguous,” resolution against wearing the full veil in public.

In his speech, Sarkozy addressed accusations that his actions are creating a more hostile environment toward France’s 6 million Muslims and said the proposed ban was motivated by love of his nation’s principles, not racism.

“The full veil is not welcome in France because it runs contrary to our values and contrary to the idea we have of a woman’s dignity,” he said, while cautioning against an extreme move that would further alienate a section of society.

“Let us undertake not to give opponents of democracy, dignity and sexual equality the chance for a victory which would put our society in a very difficult situation,” he said, adding it was “essential that no one felt stigmatized.”

In Italy, the initiative has drawn strong support from the far-right, anti-immigrant Northern League party in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's conservative government, though some opposition figures have also applauded the move.

In deeply Catholic Italy – where a European court ruling against crucifixes in classrooms sparked a national uproar – a few small northern towns have already tried to ban niqabs or burqas with local decrees, though some of those were later annulled.

The ban initiative also appears to have the backing of most Italians. A poll by the SWG polling group showed 71 percent of Italians were in favor of a ban on full-face veils.

Still, like in France, the issue has provoked sharp debate in Italy over whether a new law is needed, with leftist politicians and even some in Berlusconi's coalition questioning whether legislation could end up being counterproductive.

"I'm convinced the burqa is a prison and a form of male dominance," said leftist senator Vittoria Franco. "Having said that, I think it's wrong to ban it because it would be an abstract intervention that would not help emancipate women."

Others say wearing a burqa or a niqab is already illegal under a 1975 anti-terrorism law in Italy that bars appearing in public with a masked face.

But conservative lawmaker Souad Sbai, who has proposed amending the 1975 law to specifically include the words "niqab" and "burqa," says a clear message needs to be sent to dissuade young immigrant Muslim women from taking up face veils.

"If we don't ban it now, tomorrow we'll have lots of women walking around in a niqab," Sbai, who is of Moroccan descent, told news outlets. "Each day the number of women wearing it rises. Just go to Brescia, Bergamo or Milan or any market, they are full of women wearing them."

She says more than 1,000 women in Italy wear full face veils, though Ahmad Gianpiero Vincenzo, head of the Italian Muslim Intellectuals group, says not more than 100 women do.

Muslim groups in Italy say they advise women against wearing face veils, but that enacting a new law on it is either unnecessary or could constitute an attempt to legislate personal choice.

Either way, niqab or burqa wearers are unlikely to get much done in Italy, says a reporter from La Repubblica newspaper. Going undercover in a niqab, she recounted not being allowed to borrow library books and being asked to leave local government offices.

"Walking around Milan inside a burqa is like walking under water," she wrote in the left-leaning newspaper.

A burqa ban in Italy would be largely symbolic, since the full veil is hardly ever seen in the country. Even in France, which is about 10 percent Muslim, estimates are that fewer than 2,000 women wear the full veil.

Here’s a small sample of Letters/Op-Ed Columns regarding the issue:

Column, The Wall Street Journal
Nadra Poller

“The question is not if, but when and how France will banish full facial veiling from the streets of the République. Contrary to what has been reported in international media, the conclusions of the Parliamentary Commission are not the ‘government's’ decision. President Nicolas Sarkozy is asking Parliament for a ‘solemn declaration’ that veiled women do not belong in France, followed by an outright legal ban.

Paris is now concerned with crafting a law that will stand up to eventual challenges from the Conseil Constitutionnel and the European Court of Human Rights.

Polls show that a majority of French people support the maximalist ban. French Muslim intellectuals, activists, and community leaders who represent the promise of an enlightened European Islam are asking for an unambiguous ban on the niqab. Poet and scholar Abdelwahab Meddeb calls the niqab the ‘ideological sign of radical Islam.’ Psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama exposes the ‘masochism’ of the self-imposed veil, ‘unacceptable even in the name of individual freedom.’ Fadela Amara, undersecretary for Urban Affairs and former president of Ni Putes Ni Soumises [Neither Whores Nor Doormats] calls the niqab ‘the visible, physical expression of fundamentalists.’ This week NPNS activists dressed in burqas gathered in front of the National Assembly and major party headquarters, calling on lawmakers to protect them from this violation of women's rights.

Democracy means individual responsibility, which means showing our faces.

No one in France publicly supports the niqab – often inaccurately referred to as a burqa – except certain apologists hidden in yards of fabric finished off with a black veil that barely shows their eyes and thick gloves to hide their hands. The Islamist currents that propel this armada lurk behind the scenes or send out representatives in suits and ties who explain that the niqab is not a religious obligation, but that a legal ban would stigmatize Muslims.

The Socialist Party, in trying to define itself in opposition to Mr. Sarkozy without defending the garment, is tripping over the skirts of an extremist practice that is the antithesis of the feminism it supposedly defends. François Hollande, who is angling for the Socialists' presidential nomination in 2012, opposes facial veiling but claims a hasty law will provoke hostility and defiance. He wants more explanation, persuasion, and bipartisan consultation.

Socialist members of the parliamentary commission refused to so much as vote on the conclusions, in protest against the parallel debate on ‘national identity’ launched by the Sarkozy government and construed as hostile to immigrants. In fact, the problem is not ‘immigration.’ France has always been a land of immigration. The problem is a certain category of French people – immigrants and native born – who do not accept the essential values that define the Republic and ensure the general welfare.

Facial veiling was the focal point of a much broader phenomenon – what could be called ‘creeping sharia’ – that led Communist Deputy André Gerin to initiate the parliamentary investigation. As mayor of Venissieux, a troubled banlieue of Lyon, Mr. Gerin has witnessed a steady rise in Islamic assaults on social cohesion.

As the debate raged in the French media this week, journalists and TV cameras sought out veiled apologists who declared in muffled voices from the depths of the niqab that no one had imposed it and no one could force them to take it off. ‘Of course we lift the veil to be identified,’ declared one purist, ‘they don't even have to ask. As long as it's a woman.’ ‘And if it's a man?’ ‘Oh no, out of the question!’ Another ‘sister’ went to the heart of the matter: ‘If they pass a law I won't obey it. The law of Allah is above the law of men.’

There's the rub. And there's the message of defiance carried by these phantom women. How many are there? Two hundred? Two thousand? Has anyone gone door to door to locate them? Can you count them in the streets? How would you know if you were seeing five different women or the same woman five times? No one knows how many there are today and it doesn't matter. The issues are elsewhere.

For the French, the veil cannot be accepted as a religious accoutrement because it denies our democratic values. In a democracy the individual enjoys civil rights and accepts individual civil responsibility. This is why we show our faces, sign our names, look each other in the eyes. Moreover, integration into French society has always meant assimilation. The French do not want to follow what they see as the Anglo-Saxon model of juxtaposed ethnic ghettoes. Immigrants who master the French language, codes, style, tastes, and flair are sincerely accepted and flourish here. Today, the personal success stories of French Muslims could be swept away by a rising wave of radicalization.

The stakes are high and the debate could turn into a battlefield. Hassen Chalgoumi, the Imam of Drancy – known for his outreach to Christians and Jews – announced he is in favor of a ban on the niqab, which he calls ‘a prison for women, a tool of sexist domination and Islamist proselytism…incompatible with life in society.’ A few days later a ‘commando’ of 80 men burst into Chalgouni's mosque and threatened to get rid of ‘the imam of the Jews.’

In sharp contrast to the cohort of veiled apologists, the France-Soir daily on Tuesday published the chilling testimony of a young woman who was nudged and pushed by her husband from hijab to jilbeb to niqab to total seclusion. The couple's devout Muslim families and neighbors looked on with approval as the young woman disappeared behind the veil, hiding her despair and the bruises inflicted by her violent spouse. One day she turned for help to Ni Putes Ni Soumises, threw off her veil, divorced, and began to live again. But she is terrified that ‘they’ will find her and kill her.

The veiled saleswoman, in a shop near the radical Omar mosque on Paris's rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud, says the debate has boosted sales of jilbeb, ‘as if the girls were buying it just to stoke controversy.’

The woman in niqab is the figurehead of a subversive movement that threatens all democratic nations. A French ban that would clearly make full facial veiling unwelcome and out of bounds could be a hopeful sign for European citizens – in all their diversity.”

(Poller is an American novelist living in Paris since 1972.)

Column, The Guardian, UK
Nabila Ramdani

“Has Nicolas Sarkozy lost face in his battle against the burqa? One might think so considering his latest compromise on the issue. While the French president firmly believes that these allegedly Islamic veils are ‘a sign of subservience, a sign of debasement’ which are ‘not welcome’ anywhere in the Fifth Republic, he now thinks the only workable ban would be on public transport or in civic buildings.

In a country which is meant to champion secularism and gender equality, it really is quite a climbdown. The vast majority of French people, including most Muslims, believe that face coverings should be banned completely. They're not only intimidating and divisive, but actually have very little to do with Islam, and far more to do with central Asian and Middle Eastern traditions. They certainly engender more than a sneaking suspicion that they've been imposed by men intent on keeping their spouses or daughters away from the common gaze.

Sarkozy clearly laid out the popular view with the words: ‘The full veil is not welcome in France because it is contrary to our values and contrary to the ideals we have of a woman's dignity.’ A ban would be an entirely democratic one which would not stigmatise anyone, least of all members of France's six millon-strong Muslim community, Sarkozy argued.

Despite this, Sarkozy left us in little doubt that all those who wear face coverings – whether burqa or niqab – are Muslims living in a country which increasingly expects everyone to ‘adapt’ to the Gallic way. It was certainly no coincidence that the clampdown on religious symbols in state schools which began in 1994 centred on Muslim headscarves. Sixteen years on, the only reason Sarkozy has stopped short of a full burqa ban is because he thinks it would be thrown out by appeal courts under European human rights legislation.

Such legal challenges would be a huge embarrassment to Sarkozy, especially during his rightwing government's ill-conceived national identity debate which is allowing racist and Islamophobic views to masquerade as 21st-century patriotism. Even anti-terrorism judges have captured the increasingly hostile nature of the arguments by saying that a full ban on the veil would lead to an increase in Islamic extremism.

Under such circumstances the real issue raised by Sarkozy's burqa ban – and especially the watered down version – is not the freedom of the handful of few women who wear full veils (less than 2000 and most of them confined to isolated housing estates, according to all reliable estimates), but the very place of Islam in modern France. By targeting his tokenistic policies and soundbites at a harmless minority, Sarkozy and his cronies succeed in linking Islam with everything from sexism to national security threats. If these associations are genuine, then they should be dealt with in a manner which is honest and unambiguous. Anything less results in weak compromises engendering nothing but fear and suspicion, often without anybody really understanding why."

Letter to the International Herald Tribune
Anne Charlotte Hinet, Paris

“...France is a republic and one of the nation’s most important tenets is secularism.

Some see French secularism as intolerance toward religion, but French republicans will explain that secularism is the only way to respect all religions and let none of them dominate another. Secularism is not a rejection of religion but an attempt to make religion disappear from public life.

I disagree with President Sarkozy’s politics and approve of your editorial’s view that his support for a ban on the burqa is to ‘deflect public anger over high unemployment’ as elections approach. But it is dangerous to say the government ban is a violation of individual liberties.

The vast majority of French people – across the political spectrum – agree on the need to ban the burqa. Also, some Muslim leaders will say that wearing the burqa is not required by the Koran. And even if the burqa was required for women by the Koran, no religious law should overtake Republican law.

Another thing to keep in mind: Anglo-Saxon countries place the individual above society. In France, it’s the opposite.”

Letter to The Guardian, UK
Ken Livingstone, Susan Kramer MP, Claude Moraes MEP, Jenny Jones Green party, Cllr Salma Yaqoob, Edie Friedman Jewish Council for Racial Equality, Anas Altikiriti British Muslim Initiative, Billy Hayes General secretary, Communication Workers, Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy NUS Black Students Officer, Weyman Bennett and Sabby Dhalu Joint national secretaries, Unite Against Fascism, Lindsey German National convener, Stop the War

“Shutting down the right to choose to wear the veil will only further embolden Islamophobia, the far right and fascist parties. The debate has had the net effect of demonising a minority of Muslim women, who number less than 2,000 in France. It will mean the only option for many of these women will be to stay confined to their homes. All this, ironically, in the name of integration and the liberation of women. We are one society and many cultures; respecting and allowing all cultures freedom of expression, as long as this does not impinge on the rights of others, means all communities can fully contribute to society. The debate in France is already impacting here, with Ukip calling for a ban on the burka and niqab.”

As you can imagine, social networking websites have been inundated with voices condemning and praising the French proposal, with some people actually forming Facebook groups specifically to react to the news.

Scores of readers also sent in their views to the Arab-based Al Jazeera, which published the following in its English edition:

Sherpa, from India, was among those who felt the proposal to ban women from wearing the niqab or burqa from schools, hospitals and government buildings, was a “direct attack on Islam.”

"If a woman feels comfortable covered up and that's her norm, what right do supposed advanced civilised societies like France have to dictate what a woman does or doesn't do?" she asks.

Yusuf, from Brazil said the move sent a clear message to all Islamic countries that the French government "cannot tolerate its Muslim population."

"I am amazed how the French strut around the Middle East on peace and reconciliation missions. When clearly they have serious misconceptions and prejudices against Muslims," he wrote.

Others felt the proposal, which follows a 2004 ban on Muslim children wearing the hijab in schools, revealed the French to be more critical than Muslim nations when it came to different dress codes.

"I wore a French beret all day and night in Pakistan, in masjids around the world, and no muslim ever objected," Omar from Pakistan wrote.

The panel's description of all-encompassing veils to be "contrary to the values of the republic" triggered further outrage.

"Do they want Muslim women to adopt the ‘values’ of many French or western women...who choose to publicly pose nude or nearly nude for money or attention?" Ishmael from the U.S. asked.

Others labeled the proposal, which will be put to a vote in the French parliament, a suppression of human rights.

"Sometimes you get astonished, when you think of any western or pro-western country talking about human rights. Human rights in West, means the right to suppress muslims and defame Islam by any means," Waheed, from Afghanistan, wrote.

Another reader, Omar from the U.S., added: "It doesn't seem very liberating to tell a woman what she cannot (or can) wear. Is it supposed to be progressive to tell women they can not wear certain clothing?"

But many readers have agreed with the French recommendation, saying that the niqab has no place in a civilized society.

"Hopefully this will lead to a full public ban. The veils are symptomatic of creeping Islamisation in France and the rest of Europe, which has been disastrous in many respects.

"They have no place in open, secular, egalitarian societies. The French are to be commended for taking this step," Jerry Philipson from Canada wrote.

Other viewers took the view that one who lives in a Western country must abide by Western dress codes.

"When I'm a guest in somebody's house (country) I respect them and live by their rules. I don't impose my views, rules, etc. on them," Alvaro from Spain said.

Lila from the U.S. echoed the sentiment: "If I were to live in a Muslim country I would bow to their dress code. I live in a free country and people can practice their Muslim religion without the burqa or the hajib. When you move to another country, be part of that country."

Another drew on history to suggest wearing a face-covering veil is not a necessary part of Islam.

"During the heydays of Islam in Spain (a 1000 years ago!) when Spanish-Arabic medicine and philosophy laid the foundations for the Christian Renaissance, women only loosely covered their heads," Geert Kliphuis from Brussels argued.

Elise from the U.S. doubted wearing the niqab or burqa to be an expression of religion, but instead said it constituted a threat.

"People who will not represent who they are are sneaky in all respects and I personally don't trust them. It is not possible to have a relationship with someone who is untrustworthy, hides themself."

But perhaps Irfan from France should have the last word, who retaliates: "Try smiling when you talk over phone and the person on other will know that you are happy."

It is clear that this issue will continue to be debated worldwide. While I understand the arguments the French have put forth, I urge extreme caution: This is not a dress-code issue, and I believe they should go no further than they already have. I also urge Italy to tread lightly, and if intent on imposing a restriction, follow France’s fall-back position and enact a partial ban only.

I am sorry to say that I find this to be is a very thinly "veiled" attempt to control the spread of Islamic fundamentalism.

While terrorism should be deplored and vigorously resisted whether it's based on religious or ethnic reasons, freedom of religion must be protected just as staunchly – even if we don’t understand or even like a specific faith. As a westerner, I have no right to seek the reduction of religious followers of Islam, or any other religion. If the true intent of the proposed ban is to protect the rights or women, there are many other ways to accomplish that without restricting religious freedom. I very much fear that this is not a woman's issue at all.

— The Curator

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